In 2006, The Economist published the first-ever Democracy Index, a system that measures the state of democracy in nations around the world. Ranking countries on a scale from one to 10, it’s divided into four categories: full democracies (rated 10 to 8.01), flawed democracies (8 to 6.01), hybrid regimes (6 to 4.01) and authoritarian regimes (4.01 to 1.0).
The index takes into consideration electoral processes, civil liberties, political participation, how a government functions and political culture. Below are six authoritarian countries – all with Democracy Index scores under 2.5 as of 2021 – where fear, terror and misinformation run rampant.
Human Rights Watch has called North Korea one of the most “repressive” authoritarian countries in the world, with just a 1.08 rating on the Democracy Index. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, is head of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which controls nearly all aspects of life and keeps citizens in a constant state of fear. Anyone who tries to illegally flee the country faces extreme punishments, including detention, forced labor and even death. Any contact with the outside world is heavily restricted.
A United Nations (UN) report on human rights in North Korea uncovered some shocking results. It found the government had committed crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.”
The government also restricts basic liberties other nations take for granted, such as freedom of expression, religion, and the right to assembly and association. Political opposition and independent media organizations are also prohibited. These laws are held in place with fear-based punishment for the simplest transgressions.
The ongoing Syrian Civil War has decimated the country. Over 306,000 civilians have been killed since it began in 2011, while another 13 million have been displaced. The fighting has put civilians in the crossfire, with bombings and even chemical attacks orchestrated by the Syrian government having occurred.
According to Human Rights Watch, “With Russia and Iran’s support, the Syrian government has conducted deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, withheld humanitarian aid, employed starvation as war tactic, and forcibly displaced Syrians in contravention of international law. The Syrian government’s practices of torture and ill-treatment in detention and enforced disappearances continue.”
The barbaric leadership and prolonged suffering of civilians led Syria to receive a score of 1.43 on the Democracy Index.
In April 2021, the current transitional president of Chad, Mahamat Idriss Déby, seized control following the death of longtime leader (and his father), Idriss Déby Itno. The late president was killed by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), a military organization whose goal was to overthrow the government, which for 30 years had used political repression and institutional changes to remain in power.
The military regime, which many have accused of coming into power through a coup, has threatened to upend the largely successful counterterrorism operations established by the former government, which controlled the spread of deadly groups, like Boko Haram.
The new government promises to hold elections, but Chad notoriously relies on political manipulation and repression to maintain control. Coupled with changing regional politics, increased threats to civilian safety could occur at the hands of the country’s terrorist and insurgent groups. Given this, the authoritarian country currently has a rank of 1.67 on the Democracy Index.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Political tensions came to a head in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2017, when President Joseph Kabila refused to leave office after he’d completed his two-term limit. Free speech and the freedom to peacefully assemble to protest Kabila’s seizure turned violent when security forces killed 62 demonstrators. Over 100 more deaths occurred the following year and journalists were detained in what’s now one of the world’s many authoritarian countries.
Clashes between Congolese security forces, government-backed militias and local insurgent groups resulted in the deaths of an estimated 5,000 people in the Kasai region. According to Human Rights Watch, “Six hundred schools were attacked or destroyed, and 1.4 million people were displaced from their homes […] Nearly 90 mass graves have been discovered in the region, the majority of which are believed to contain the bodies of civilians and militants killed by government security forces.”
The DRC currently has a rating of 1.40 on the Democracy Index.
Uzbekistan is considered one of the world’s consolidated authoritarian countries, and its government has made positive changes toward reconciling human rights abuses and control in recent years. The country’s new leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has released political prisoners, scaled back the nation’s security “black list” and eased certain restrictions on free speech.
Unfortunately, these changes aren’t enough to change Uzbekistan’s Democracy Index score of 2.12. Opposition parties continue to be outlawed, and the media is tightly controlled by the government. As well, while it may appear the country’s government runs through different branches, these tend to work more under the direction of the executive branch, rather than independently.
Unjustified arrests continue, and horrific punishments like torture, unjust imprisonment and forced labor remain commonplace. According to testimony recorded by Human Rights Watch, prisoners are tortured in front of other imprisoned persons, forced to run naked in the cold and are doused in freezing water to deprive them of sleep.
Turkmenistan is one of the most secretive and closed-off authoritarian countries in the world. The president controls most aspects of public life, prohibiting any form of religious and political expression not approved by the state. As well, the media is tightly monitored and internet access is restricted. All of this has led to Turkmenistan receiving a rating of 1.66 on the Democracy Index.
The authoritarian regime seems to care more about what the outside world thinks than their own citizens’ rights. Many housing complexes were demolished for a large-scale beautification project in anticipation of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), which offered the world a rare glimpse into the secretive country.
In 2022, former President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow stepped down and was replaced by his son, Serdar, who subsequently won the country’s presidential election. However, a number of international organizations have since spoken out about the election, calling it neither free nor fair.